In my family home growing up, the main hall displayed a family portrait gallery of my parents' wedding photo, family group pictures, and the visual growth chart of our school photos through the years. My husband's parents still have such a gallery in their home.
To a new visitor, such photo walls are simply images, faces captured on paper. To the family, though, those faces are the gateways to stories and personalities. The toddler photo of me holding Pooh's nose is not just a humorous glimpse of childhood in general, but a visual representation of the day I first demonstrated a dislike of sitting in front of the camera and the way an overactive imagination could be harnessed for good with the right cue. My sisters each had school photos capturing the stunning results of games of beauty parlor gone bad. In all three cases, the photo serves as an icon for a story.
In the Bible, when Jesus’ friend Matthew leads us on a guided tour through Jesus’ life, he begins at just such a family portrait gallery. In this case, of course, it is Jesus’ family. Imagine, if you will, that you walk with Matthew and me into a grand hallway, as of some lordly family's vast estate. On the walls are 42 portraits of Jesus’ ancestors. Immediately we notice that all of the portraits are of men—all, that is, except 5. Those 5 each feature a man and a woman.
If you’re like me, questions will immediately spring to mind:
First, why are there almost all men? Why so few women?
Second, why these women? What distinguishes them from all the others who were left out?
The first question is relatively easy to answer. You see, this is not actually a gallery of photos, but a written genealogy of names. In the ancient world, a genealogy typically traced only the male line of a family. The more appropriate question, therefore, is not, “Why so few women?” but, “Why any women?”
The second question, friends, is what we will ask and seek to answer in this post series. In the Gospel according to Matthew, the introduction to the Christmas story consists of a genealogy of the prior 42 generations of Jesus’ family. In those 42 generations, Matthew selects 5 women to include. Why bother? What distinguishes and unites these women that would make them a fitting prelude to the story of Jesus’ birth?
If it were my family tree, the most outstanding women would be my choice:
A movie star. . .
An author. . .
A daughter of the American Revolution. . .
An heiress. . .
A humanitarian. . .
(None of which actually exists in my family tree, mind you!)
Matthew, however, spotlights
A widow who disguises herself as a prostitute in order to get pregnant. . .
An actual prostitute. . .
A penniless migrant worker. . .
An adulteress. . .
And a teenage unwed mother.
What’re you thinking Matthew? This is your selection for our first impression of Jesus’ family?
Clearly, to answer this question we must look at their stories more closely. In chronological order, their names are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and finally Jesus’ mother Mary.
Tamar – Broken Promise
Tamar’s story is told in the book of Genesis, chapter 38. The nation of Israel is in its earliest days. In fact, Tamar knows Israel not as a nation but as a man, a wealthy shepherd, in fact. Israel (also called Jacob) has 12 sons. One son, Judah, wanders away from the rest of the family and settles with another tribe called the Canaanites. He marries a woman from that tribe, and they have 3 sons. His eldest son marries Tamar but dies before giving her children. At this time in history, not to have a son is considered such a tragedy that it becomes the responsibility of the next brother in the family to marry the widow and raise up a son to carry on his dead brother’s name.
Consequently, according to custom, Judah gives his second son to be Tamar’s husband. Selfishly, this son refuses to do his duty, since there wouldn’t be any direct benefit to himself. This displeases God so much that he takes the man’s life.
One son still remains, but by this time Judah is getting suspicious about Tamar. Two marriages, two dead sons. . . Hoping she’ll get impatient and marry someone else, he tells her his youngest isn’t old enough for marriage yet, so she’ll have to wait.
She faithfully does, staying in her widow’s weeds to broadcast to the community that she is not available to any other man. Years pass, the youngest son grows up, and it becomes clear that Judah has no intention of fulfilling his promise to Tamar.
What’s a girl to do? She’s living with her father now, but he won’t be around forever. She needs a husband or a son, or both, for financial security. What’s more, there’s still the issue of someone to carry on her dead husband’s name (and Judah’s, for that matter).
What's a girl to do? Tamar decides to dress up as a prostitute on a day when she knows her father-in-law will be in her father’s town. She lies in wait for him along the road. . . and does what prostitutes do. Basically, she entraps him into keeping his promise to her. As a guarantee that he will send payment (since he thinks she’s a prostitute), she takes his seal and his staff, which identify him as clearly as a driver’s license would today.
Three months later, when she turns up pregnant and he accuses her of immorality, she produces his ID and turns the accusation back on him. He not only drops the charges but confesses his broken promise of not giving her his last son.
Through one of the twin boys born from this liaison, Tamar becomes part of Jesus’ family tree.
To sum up, Tamar is the victim of a gross injustice, a broken promise of the worst kind. In her day, she had no legal recourse for the redress of this grievance, so she resorts to deception to obtain what was rightfully hers. God graciously – in spite of her deception – meets her at the point of her brokenness and gives her two sons, one of whom becomes a forefather of the King to come.
Does this story connect at all with your life? The details don’t match, of course, but perhaps you yourself are the victim of a broken promise. Entrust your “Judah” and your rights to God. Ask Him to meet you in your helplessness and turn the brokenness into blessing, for you and for others. The promise He gives you and will not break is Psalm 146:9:
“The LORD watches over the alien
and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.”